Kevin Brinkley’s murder conviction as a juvenile nearly 40 years ago was based largely on the testimony of two eyewitnesses. Brinkley’s brother, Ronald, has maintained for years he committed the crime. Now, as staff writer Samantha Melamed reported, the person who prosecuted Brinkley is not even sure he put the right person behind bars.
Though the details of the case are unique, the fact that Brinkley’s conviction was based on what appears to be faulty eyewitness testimony is, sadly, all too common.
Eyewitness misidentification is the single biggest contributor to wrongful convictions. More than 70 percent of the convictions that have been overturned through DNA testing nationwide involved eyewitnesses who got it wrong, according to the Innocence Project.
Scores of scientific studies over the decades have shown that eyewitnesses are often inaccurate. That results in innocent people going to prison. Some basic police department reforms could help reduce eyewitness misidentification.
- The police officer administering the lineup should not know who is the suspect. This can prevent suggestive statements, unconscious gestures, and vocal cues that may influence a witness.
- Eyewitnesses should view suspects one at a time, so they are not compared to one another but rather against the witness’ memory.
- Eyewitnesses should be told in advance the suspect may or may not be in the lineup and the investigation will continue regardless of the results. That would ease pressure on eyewitnesses to make an identification even if they are not confident in their selection.
- The identification procedures should be recorded and eyewitnesses asked how confident they are in their identification.
To its credit, the Philadelphia Police Department has incorporated many of the reforms. But outmoded procedures remain at many smaller police departments, including some in Pennsylvania.
Brinkley was 15 when he was sent to prison for life for allegedly shooting egg deliveryman Charles Haag in December 1977. Ronald Brinkley was 14.
Ronald Brinkley confessed to the murder several times over the years. In 1995, a judge found his testimony lacked credibility. The District Attorney’s Office has maintained the right person was convicted.
But Gerald Dugan, the former assistant district attorney who prosecuted Kevin Brinkley, now admits he has long had doubts about the case.
Fortunately, two recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings that prohibit life sentences for minors without the possibility of parole have made Brinkley eligible for release from prison. The parole board is expected to decide within the next two weeks. Given lingering doubts, even by the man who prosecuted him, that Brinkley committed the murder, the parole board should set him free.
Brinkley’s case underscores the unreliability of eyewitness identifications. It also shows the Supreme Court was right to allow inmates convicted as minors who demonstrate rehabilitation to eventually be released from prison.